The Terps take on Purdue Oct. 1 in College Park, Md., and to gain more insight into the Boilermakers we touched base with Journal Courier beat writer Nate Baird. Our question-and-answer session is below:
Terrapin Times: The preseason polls had Purdue sitting at the bottom of the Big Ten West. Has the team's 2-1 start given fans a bit more confidence heading into Big Ten play, or is there a feeling this could be a long season for the Boilermakers?
Nate Baird: I think a 3-0 start might have invigorated the fan base. It was within reach, but five turnovers against Cincinnati resulted in a 38-20 loss in the second game. With only six victories in three seasons, there will always be skepticism about Purdue’s success until it sustains some. The Boilermakers have only won one Big Ten Conference road game in three seasons under Darrell Hazell, so this trip to Maryland and next week’s to Illinois are opportunities to show something.
TT: What's the vibe around the program and head coach Darrell Hazell right now? This is his fourth year at Purdue, but so far he hasn't had a season with more than three victories. Are folks getting a bit anxious in West Lafayette?
NB: I think anxious is an understatement. Mike Bobinski officially took over as athletic director early this month, and already stated his first priority is to fix football. The previous AD, Morgan Burke, announced during last season that Hazell wouldn’t be fired, but both coordinators were cut loose after the season. Everyone understands that without demonstrable progress a coaching change will come. However, that definition of progress may be a moving target. Would a bowl trip to save Hazell’s job?
TT: What needs to happen for Purdue to rise up the ranks in the Big Ten? I noticed their recruiting classes haven't been especially highly-rated; is that an issue and how are they going about rectifying it?
NB: I believe recruiting is a crucial element. The Boilermakers have been consistently ranked at or near the bottom of the league in that category for years. While one can quibble over the accuracy of ratings for a player here or there, I don’t think you’ll find any programs who consistently receive consensus low grades who win many games. However, Purdue is addressing that. Construction is underway on a $65 million football performance complex, and the staff is pushing that project hard in recruiting.
TT: What are the main strengths of this Purdue team, and what areas are there some concerns? Also, what type of offense and defense do they run?
NB: This spread offense has shown a lot of balance through three games. Markell Jones is a talented back, though he’s been banged up recently and lost two fumbles against Nevada. A big improvement has been the emergence of Domonique Young as a legitimate perimeter threat to complement DeAngelo Yancey.
There are bigger concerns on defense, where Purdue doesn’t have much depth outside of the linebacker group. On the other hand, it shut down Nevada’s solid rushing game and started generating a consistent pass rush from the front four. New defensive coordinator Ross Els installed a matchup defense, so expect to see Purdue in a lot of nickel packages.
TT: Who are the Boilermakers' X factors, and what do they bring to the table?
NB: Two newcomers - freshman Brian Lankford-Johnson and junior college transfer Malik Kimbrough - appear to be potential difference-makers in the return game. One of Purdue’s most important defensive players is junior cornerback Da’Wan Hunte, who missed the first two games with an ankle injury. His presence was apparent in the win over Nevada. The Boilermakers are dealing with some personnel issues on their offensive line, which has made senior guards Jason King and Jordan Roos even more valuable.
TT: Is there any excitement or curiosity surrounding this game since Purdue has a number of alums in the D.C. area and it's the first time the two teams have met since the Champ Sports Bowl?
NB: I haven’t specifically heard many fans excited about Maryland. (On the contrary, many Midwesterners still grumble about the eastward expansion of the Big Ten. Save yourself a headache and don’t get them started on the location of the basketball tournament.) What Purdue fans DO like is their East Division crossovers don’t include Michigan, Michigan State or Ohio State this season. By drawing teams like Maryland instead the Boilermakers get to punch their weight, so to speak. But they have to execute better than they have the past three seasons.